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Is HD Radio right for you - maybe not …

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Is HD Radio right for you - maybe not …

    • Objective - This post is written to help members who may be considering adding HD radio (especially to their cars).  The goal is to give you the information to make an informed decision without having to spend money first to evaluate HD.  (Most of this data is also covered in my Sony car stereo review thread, but I wanted to make it more concise here (and failed).  There are several reasons a guide like this is necessary:
      • First off, HD radio is somewhat controversial.  Opinions range anywhere from one member (PocketRadio) claiming it is a farce and a scandal and that CF is liquidating their HD lineup, to Ibiquity and the HD alliance (which I think are the same thing) claiming it is the greatest thing since, well, AM stereo (sorry, that was a cheap shot - but “the free alternative to satellite” is a better claim that I will discuss below!!!)
      • For a number of reasons (that I will touch on) HD radio has not really caught on yet - so it typically isn’t like you can pick one of five friends and they will have an HD tuner and you can decide for yourself.  Listening in a store (if they even have an antenna hooked up) will NOT give you an idea of range and reception.
      • It can be a fairly high stakes decision.  If you forego it and go with a brand of receiver that does not offer HD and then want it, there are universal add-ons, but they look like that.  If you choose a radio with it, other than cost, you aren’t out much other than the fact that if it isn’t for you, you might have been better with a different brand.

     

    • My Qualifications - I am by no means an expert on any of this, but there are two things that make me fairly uniquely qualified to help you make a decision:
      • Since September 2007, I have owned a Sony HD tuner and Sony CDX-GT410u receiver.  Furthermore, since about March 2008, I have owned an antenna splitter, which means I can directly compare the Sony HD tuner to the Sony analog tuner.  In addition - I am a “gadget geek” which means I listen to Sirius and car stereos from other models in the electronics stores.
      • More importantly - pardon the Michael Vick reference - but “I don’t have a dog in the fight”!!!  I don’t work for CF or Ibiquity, but I don’t think they (Ibiquity - CF has been great to me) are totally evil either.  If you read this and decide that HD is perfect for you or not for you at all, and you still feel you made the right decision afterward, this thread has done its job.

     

    • Hardware - First off, I need to correct something from my car stereo review.  In that review, I said the HD tuner performance was better than the analog Sony tuner.  That is NOT true.  The receiver is LOUDER than the analog tuner.  With analog reception, louder signal tends to be associated with a stronger signal, so it is easy to ASSuME the HD tuner is stronger based on this.  If you listen to an analog signal or AM signal at the fringe of reception, the HD tuner has more dropouts than the analog GT410u tuner.  NOTE:  I am NOT implying that the only improvement from HD is that the tuner is louder.  If you listen to the tuner on an HD station when you are in range, typically you can hear the clarity improve when the HD signal locks in.  I don’t think it’s as dramatic as the ads (more below) (CD-quality sound), but it is an improvement.

     

    From what I have read, Pioneer’s HD tuner is also not as good as their analog tuner.  I need to qualify that to the fact that Pioneer has consistently had some of the finest mobile FM tuners made, so it is quite possible that the Pioneer analog tuner is better than their HD tuner, which is better than Sony’s analog tuner, which is better than Sony’s HD tuner - but I can’t say this for sure.  I can say that the Sony analog tuner is probably fairly comparable to the 2002 Ford Focus/Expedition stock tuner, and the HD tuner is worse than that - which is pretty disappointing.  I can’t really comment on JVC, Alpine, or Kenwood’s offerings.

     

    • Range - This is likely the biggest drawback of HD, and also perhaps the hardest to quantify.  (It’s also a bit ironic, b/c the transmitters are typically on the same towers as the analog signal, so while for example, you might choose satellite radio or Direct TV or cable TV b/c you were outside of OTA range, with HD, you really only get good reception within about 30 miles of downtown, but in that range, you can get great analog reception anyway).  Typical analog radio has a rough range of 60-100 miles and gradually picks up increasing static until it becomes unlistenable.  OTOH, HD radio probably has a range of 1/4 to 1/3 of that, and drops (digital, 1 or 0, on or off) - i.e. either you have signal or on an HD1 station or it will drop back to the analog feed.  On an HD2 or HD3 station - there is nothing to “drop back” to, so it drops to silence.  To put this in perspective for you, my daily commute is about 15 miles each way, from about 45 miles from downtown to 30 miles from downtown.  On FM, I probably get HD about 60-80% of the time.  I have to watch the display much of that time and see if it says FM or HD, or I wouldn’t know (which is good, but also underscores that it is NOT that dramatic an improvement).  However, depending on the station - it is NOT always a seamless transition.  The effect is most similar to what you sometimes see with an analog tuner - where the signal will briefly pick up static or drop out - making you think there might be a short in the speaker wiring - except that it won’t ever happen on CD or USB!!!  BTW, I listen to about 5 different stations.  I won’t put the specific names, but you might guess them, and interestingly, NONE of them is perfect. 
      • Classic Hits - This is a fairly powerful station, but the transmitter is about 30 miles on the opposite side of downtown from me, so roughly 60-70 miles away at the long side of it.  This station has a poor HD Codec.  The reception drops out in my neighborhood with the HD tuner, but not with the analog one.   
      • Quality Rock - Moderately powerful station, I think transmitter is downtown.  Reception is about the same as Classic Hits above - other than reception, the station has few problems.
      • Music Matters - Powerful station, I think transmitter is downtown.  Reception is slightly better than above, but time alignment is off - this means that when the signal drops out, the station “stutters”.  Note - reception is not constant - I get okay reception a short ways from home, and dropouts a short ways from work, but generally get signal about 80% of the time.
      • AM Talk - This is why no product should be reviewed before it is used for about a year.  The local AM station is simulcast on Classic Hits on its HD2 feed.  When I first got the unit, I would listen to the AM station on the HD Tuner’s AM band for the first 3 miles and then switch to the HD2-FM feed.  I don’t know if reception got worse or it just bothers me more (probably the latter), but while dropouts are annoying with music, with talk it’s even worse, and with static, you can usually tell what’s been said from context, but not with dropouts.  To avoid dropouts, I ended up listening to the analog tuner AM band for the first half of the commute, and the AM band of the HD tuner for the second half and never listening to the HD2 feed at all.
      • Project - Ironicly, I listen to this station the least b/c I don’t care that much for the content, but they are fairly powerful and I think downtown, and they basically have it set up right.  They also broadcast the local MLB games, which is why I bought the antenna splitter - more below …
    • Transmission:  As I mentioned in another thread, the transmission problems and fixes for HD radio are well-known (and posted on iBiquity’s site), so they really shouldn’t be happening.  In theory, all you should hear when HD1 stations drop out is a slight volume change due to the decreased dynamic range.  Life is rarely that perfect.  These are typical problems:
      • Time Alignment - Here’s what is going on:  It takes roughly 5-6 seconds for your HD tuner to lock in the HD signal.  B/c of this, most stations delay their analog signal by 5-6 seconds so the two signals stay in synch.  There are 3 consequences to this:
        • Most stations no longer bother now that there are Internet clocks and GPS and Cel phones, but if the station is sharp it has to say “At the tone, it will be 12:00” at 11:59:54, or else you won’t hear it until 12:00:06”.
        • Even stations with poor time alignment (Music Matters) are NOT six seconds off - however, they might be off by 1/2-second or so.  That is enough to sound like static when the signal drops out.
        • Sports - This is the biggest drawback to this.  Even stations that normally time-align perfectly often turn it off for sports broadcasts, b/c they don’t want the analog listeners to have the timing off if you were watching the game on TV and listening on radio for example.  The HD signal is then 6 seconds off if you are listening on HD in range, but in a car without TV, this doesn’t matter.  In fringe reception, it does, b/c as I said previously, you hear “And Chipper steps up and gets ready … steps up and …. Wicked cut and that one might just make it…. and that one might just … at the wall, and Chipper is almost to sec … that one might just” 
      • Codecs - This is hard to explain also - the Classic Hits station has this problem - basically on songs with a lot of synthesizer or acoustic guitar (SuperTramp, Eagles, Styx, Elton John, etc.), there is a high-pitched whine on the high frequencies.  The station actually sounds better on analog even when it is in HD range.  Again, some songs are worse than others - Heavier bands like Boston, etc. have less problems.  What I don’t know is whether there is just one bad codec and this station happened to pick it, or whether the codec they use works fine for country but not rock, and the other one would sound good for SuperTramp and bad for Boston.  I do know out of ten stations, this is the only one that is noticeably poor with it.
      • Unavailable - Yep - probably once or twice a month, one of the stations simply will not be broadcasting in HD at all for a couple of days.
      • BTW - I did contact the Program Directors at a couple of the stations (especially on the time alignment issues) - He informed the Chief Engineer and it was fixed for a couple of weeks, but then it broke again, so I gave up.
    • Multicasting:  This is perhaps the biggest and most over-rated claim by HD - “Find out what you’ve been missing!!”  “The free alternative to Satellite” etc. - not really, but to understand why it’s not, I have to explain a bit of what is good and bad about satellite:
      • Variety - Satellite does a good job with this.  I can’t give an example, but there are four or five satellite rock stations (some have gone - Buzz Saw, Hair Nation, Octane, Classic Vinyl, Classic Rewind, The Vault, Deep Cuts) and each of them probably is playing something I want to listen to about 80% of the time.  Locally, I have four rock stations, two of them are broadcasting similar content on the HD2 feed (one has the AM station on HD2 and one does not use HD2), and any of them has something I want to hear about 20% of the time.  20% of six is a bit better than 20% of four, but …
      • Practicality - The biggest gripe I have with satellite (other than paying for radio), is that there are SO MANY stations that by the time I flip through the dial and decide Station 1 is what I wanted to listen to, the song that was playing is over.  With HD - there is a worse twist to this … If I want to listen to Preset 1, HD-2, I have to wait 5 seconds for the HD station to lock before I can tune it in and see what is playing, and then to hear Preset 2, HD-2, I have to wait 5 seconds for IT to lock in, etc.  So to scan through three HD-1 and HD-2 stations takes about 20 seconds, while six analog stations would take maybe 12 seconds.  Doesn’t sound like much, but it makes it fairly impractical.
      • Summary - Your local market might be different - perhaps you have a Jazz Fusion station on HD-2, and you are unlikely to find that elsewhere.  Personally, with 1000 some songs on an MP3 player or USB stick, I can listen to that on random play and hear music I like with more variety than local radio, and if I REALLY want to hear good music that I don’t own, satellite is a great option - HD, at least for me is not from a variety standpoint.  Then again - a couple of the stations have changed formats since I bought the radio, and it’s always possible one of them will have a GREAT HD-2 feed, and if so, I’ll be ready.
    • Tagging - If multi-casting is the most over-rated feature, this is the most under-rated one!!!  Most stations DO transmit the artist and song title, and it’s a really nice feature.  If you have an RDS tuner, you can probably get that already - but they are rare and less common than they used to be (and they never were very common), or satellite has it, but it’s really convenient to hear a song you either really like or really hate and be able to instantly know who the band and title is.  It’s one of those features I never had before and now take for granted to the point that I’m sure I’d miss it if it were gone.
    • AM on FM - Again, this is one of the main reasons I bought the tuner.  If you are in range, it is a great feature.
    • Replay Function - This is something most people won’t realize.  As I said, the AM radio signal is simulcast on one of the HD-2 feeds, but since it won’t drop back to AM, they don’t bother to time align it.  That means if I am listening to the AM feed and forget to pay attention to the weather forecast, I can probably switch over to HD-2 and catch what I missed.  OTOH, if I am listening to HD-2 and lose signal, the AM signal has already passed that by, so it’s gone forever.
    • Bottom Line - It is really hard to advise anyone else on whether or not HD is a good choice.  Keep in mind:
      • I posted a fair amount of negatives above, but for music I still listen more to the HD tuner over the analog tuner, and I don’t have to - with the splitter, I could listen to analog or HD.  (In fact, if it was as bad as I made it sound, I would listen to the analog tuner and just switch to HD when I wanted to know a song title.  In fact, for music, I typically do the opposite - I mainly listen to the HD feed, and only switch to analog on the station with the bad codec or when I know I am getting out of range of decent reception.  (By decent reception, I am talking about the range where the HD tuner starts dropping the analog feed, not where the HD tuner starts dropping the digital feed.  I.e. on the drive home, typically the signal will drop back to analog at 3 miles from work, 7 miles from work, and 2 miles from home, and then about a mile from home, it will start losing the analog signal as well, but the analog tuner will still do fine, so I will switch over to it at the 1-mile point.)
      • I got the HD tuner for basically $50 with a package deal from CF and CF still offers these from time to time.  For that price and with the antenna splitter, there aren’t a lot of drawbacks.  I bought a Sony b/c of the USB/Aux/and HD tuner, and if HD were less important to me, I likely would have gone with JVC or Pioneer, but it’s hard to say if those would have been better choices.
      • From a pure entertainment value, I think either satellite radio, USB thumb drives, iPod connectivity or just an AUX input for an MP3 player are better values, but there are no reasons you can’t have these and HD radio also.
      • The reception and range issues are a major disappointment.  Not so much at a personal level, b/c I understand what is going on with the technology … But it’s a little disconcerting when someone rides in the car and you have to turn off the HD radio tuner b/c the sound quality is worse than factory FM and this is something you paid EXTRA for …

     

    Hope this helps - and feel free to ask any questions.  I tried to write this well, but I think if you haven’t heard HD, you’re going to think “He said it sounds better than analog FM, but it doesn’t come in as well - HUH???” and if you have heard it, you’ll probably think I nailed it, but in that case, you really didn’t need me to tell you any of this …

    2002 Ford Focus JVC KD-A815 Sony CDX-GT410u Sony XT-100HD HD Tuner Stock speakers, no amp, no subs

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    www.crutchfield.com/Malcolm
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    2002 Ford Focus JVC KD-A815 Sony CDX-GT410u Sony XT-100HD HD Tuner Stock speakers, no amp, no subs

  • Was checking out the CF forums and came across this post.

    I figured I'd chime in in that I had HDRadio in my car for about 2 years.

    The above write-up was very good. I'm in Atlanta and what I found was that, oddly, as I drove inside the perimeter (beltway) the reception got worse. Lots of cutting back and forth between digital and analog. I could go fairly far out and have pretty decent reception. If the station was out-of-synch between analog and digital it was quite annoying even if you were in a good reception area because, invariably, it would cut out once in a while.

    When I bought a new car a year ago I sold my old stereo stuff and HDRadio didn't play into the mix with the new car. The dealership offered to sell me XM for the factory stereo but never mentioned HDRadio (which to me, says a lot for a technology and shows that's really started to wane). The way I figure it is that if HDRadio were going to catch on it would have by now. I got a new HU for my car but didn't put HDRadio in there. It just wasn't worth the trouble. It was kind of neat to play with for those 2 years but not neat enough to where I thought, "Oh, I have to have this in my next car."

    I think if you were to pick some random person in your life (or even several of them) and asked them about HDRadio most wouldn't know what you're talking about and those that do would just sort-of know. I think the only way HDRadio would catch on is if it were standard in every car (like AM/FM is). You'd be hard-pressed to find a car on a lot that didn't at least have AM/FM in it. You'll see odd blurbs about Ford or some other company adding HDRadio but, for the most part, if you were to go to most any dealer and look on the lot, no HDRadios in the cars. This is for a technology that is about 10 years old now (I think it started around 2000 or 2001).

    As a good contrast look at GPS units. Most everyone has heard of them, know what they are, etc. Most folks either have one in their car or are planning to get one sometime in the future. There's a definite interest there. Not so with HDRadio. The best you'd get outside of some gadget guy who follows the stuff would be, "Isn't that some kind of high-definition radio that didn't catch on years back?"

    (HD doesn't stand for High Definition)

  • Good comments!!!

    Brad Bishop
    The above write-up was very good. I'm in Atlanta and what I found was that, oddly, as I drove inside the perimeter (beltway) the reception got worse. Lots of cutting back and forth between digital and analog. I could go fairly far out and have pretty decent reception. If the station was out-of-synch between analog and digital it was quite annoying even if you were in a good reception area because, invariably, it would cut out once in a while.

    I'm near Altanta also, but rarely inside the beltway.  I imagine the tall buildings inside the perimeter cause similar reception problems to the hills and valleys outside of it (OTP).

    The dealership offered to sell me XM for the factory stereo but never mentioned HDRadio (which to me, says a lot for a technology and shows that's really started to wane).

    In fairness to HD - I think there are some other major issues going on here as well.  Sirius and XM can afford to essentially give "kickbacks" to include tuners and a year or month of free subscription b/c if at least 10% of purchasers subscribe, that's an additional revenue stream.  With HD the only incentive is if you are more likely to buy a Ford or Toyota with HD than a Chevy for Dodge (for example) without it.

    The way I figure it is that if HDRadio were going to catch on it would have by now. I got a new HU for my car but didn't put HDRadio in there. It just wasn't worth the trouble. It was kind of neat to play with for those 2 years but not neat enough to where I thought, "Oh, I have to have this in my next car."

    Again, it depends on the market and on what you are interested in.  For example, the only jazz station in Atlanta that I know of is currently on HD-2, so that is a bonus.  OTOH, most of the other HD-2 stations are playing the identical format (and sometimes the identical artists) to their HD-1 counterparts - which are generally not great, so .....

    Hope This Helps!!!

    2002 Ford Focus JVC KD-A815 Sony CDX-GT410u Sony XT-100HD HD Tuner Stock speakers, no amp, no subs

  • Your honesty is definately appreciated, and an excellent assessment of the problems with HD Radio. This is the first time I have ever read anything negative about HD Radio from a retailer, or someone associated with such. In making informed decisions, consumers also need to know the long-term ramifications of supporting iBiquity through HD radio purchases, as iBiquity receives royalties. For those that truly love radio, I would suggest they forego purchasing HD radios, as this system is jamming the smaller broadcasters on adjacent-channel frequencies.



    [edited by: PocketRadio at 7:41 PM (GMT -5) on Mon, Mar 22 2010]

    HD Radio is a farce! http://hdradiofarce.blogspot.com

  • PocketRadio
    This is the first time I have ever read anything negative about HD Radio from a retailer, or someone associated with such.

    It's a pretty loose association with a retailer and also not the first time I've posted negative comments on HD radio - my review page was long before this - as were several of my other posts in this forum - but thanks!

    2002 Ford Focus JVC KD-A815 Sony CDX-GT410u Sony XT-100HD HD Tuner Stock speakers, no amp, no subs

  • Excellent thread.   Thank you!